I am about to say words that I never, ever thought I would say, words that I hope to never have to say again, as a cule and a soci:
I’m glad we lost. Because I didn’t want to win like that.
When Busquets took that dive after the slightest of touches from Motta, and was shown on TV, peeking through his hands to see if the appropriate horror was being registered by the officiating crew, my heart sank and I almost started crying.
The team that I love so much is not supposed to do that. It just isn’t. Last season when we swept all before us, we didn’t just win playing our game. We won doing the right thing, being sportsmen and doing the colors proud. Yes, it’s easy to be graceful when you are kicking everyone’s butts, some might say, but it isn’t. Not at all. When you have your foot on someone’s throat, it’s easy to be a lout, but we weren’t. So it wasn’t just the beauty of our football that seduced the globe, but the pride with which we played it, and the grace that we followed it up with.
But it went from that, to one of the more shameful displays I have seen in a long time, and Valdes squabbling with Mourinho, and us turning the sprinklers on during the Inter celebration. I’m just ashamed right now, and sad and disgusted. It doesn’t mean that I love or support the club any less, but that love and support means calling it like you see it.
This was supposed to be a match for the ages, the remuntada of all time, as we overturned a 3-1 deficit to go through to the Champions League final, to be played on the home pitch of our most hated rival.
But it didn’t work out that way, because our genius got out-geniused. I have always said that when you give a good coach too many chances to beat you, he will get one of them right. Mourinho got two of them right, though certainly our defense was complicit in the first one, when they played like extras in a Keystone Kops comedy, instead of like defenders for the best club in the world.
And Inter played their collective backsides off, and were the superior side over the two legs. The aggregate scoreline says so, their sweat-soaked shirts say so and I say so. Had we played with as much grit, fire and determination, this would be a very different match review that I have to write. So again, congratulations to Inter, and if you would all please pee all over the walls of the Bernabeu locker room, that would warm my heart. Thank you.
Guardiola rolled out with a lineup of Valdes, Alves, The Yaya, Pique, Milito, Keita, Busquets, Xavi, Messi, Pedro! and Ibrahimovic. Mourinho rolled out with a lineup that, on paper, looked dangerous but in reality, it played pillow soft, with the intention of doing nothing more than helping time go past. Milito was on the point, and got the occasional long ball, but really the prinicipal intention was to aggressively soak up our possession and pressure. “Let ’em play with the ball. We’ll stop them when it matters.”
But in Mourinho’s putting real attackers out there of the likes of Milito, Eto’o and Sneijder, we had to play a little honest lest we get burned on the counter and concede a killer away goal. And time passed, filled with our minutes and minutes of meaningless possession. Messi unleashed an excellent shot that sparked an even more excellent save from Julio Cesar, and that was it for the real first half scoring chances.
Busquets’ appalling shamefulness had another unfortunate result for us, in that it made Inter resolve to just defend. Let’s pull it back, and just defend. And why shouldn’t they, being down a man? Suddenly, the shame in just fighting like lions just outside your box was gone, because they were morally in the right.
Further, it wasn’t anti-football. Not at all. It was intelligent football that we had no answer for, because our attacking was coming from the center, where the likes of Lucio just parried it away, and we set up to try again. What was missing was the overlaps from the backs, because Alves was having another stinker, and Milito is a fine defender, but he’s never going to set the world on fire as an attacker. So we had no real width, which made us even easier to defend.
Our goal, and the only goal of the match was beautiful, as Pique was the recipient of a killer ball that he controlled, spun and smoked past a helpless Cesar. Was he offside? Yes. Just. But that’s life in the big city, right? Each team had an offside goal allowed so all’s fair in love, war and football, right?
What was heartbreaking about that goal was that mere minutes before, Krkic, who came on for Ibrahimovic, had a free header, straight on, looking at the wide-open space that Cesar was helpless to defend ….
And he pushed it wide. The Kid wet the bed. It was a beautiful play that found him doing everything right, breaking at the exact right time and receiving an exquisite pass from Messi that pillowed right onto his head. And he shanked it. You could almost see Inter breathe a huge sigh of relief, and resolve to close up even tighter. If Krkic scores that goal, we need a single goal with about 10 minutes to get it, on a team that had absolutely no interest in doing anything other than defending. And they were getting tired. Instead, the time that passed between that gimme and Pique’s bit of excellence, meant that there was too little time left for us.
In another excellent play, we rushed the box as we should have been doing right from the outset of the match, playing with the urgency that finally, at the dying of the match, found its way into our legs and minds. A ball was whipped in that was cleared as far as our human wall, The Yaya. The Inter defender whacked that ball with all his might into the upper chest/shoulder area of The Yaya. It caromed off directly into the path of Krkic, who smoked it past Cesar into the top shelf. The announcer shrieked “They did it!” But no.
Everyone heard the whistle for the handball call, and stopped playing. After that, in the 92nd minute, it was all over but the shouting, of which there was plenty.
There are so many questions to ask about this match, such as why our lads didn’t play with any urgency at all until about 10 minutes to go in regulation time, or why Guardiola rolled out with Milito instead of Maxwell, thus sacrificing any attacking force and potential overlaps from the left. Or why he didn’t at least try Henry in a big match instead of Pedro!, who has a knack for scoring the big goal, but wasn’t the player to deal with what Inter was doing. What was needed was someone with a great first touch, to make a run at the defense, or to try to get behind the defense to cross the ball or cut toward the goal. Not having that made the left side even more impotent.
So Messi had his little shadow, who just hovered over his strong side so that our talisman could do anything he wanted, to his weak side. And we were pumping balls in to a static Ibrahimovic, balls that were easily defended by Inter’s stalwart back line, who are also big, in case nobody noticed. Maxwell came in and things immediately got a bit better, but there still weren’t the kinds of overlaps and significant aggression that widen the pitch, and make us so unplayable.
We played right into Inter’s hands. Now we get to watch the Champions League final on television, as we deserve to, judging by our play over the two legs.
And now comes the question of culpability. I didn’t look at the liveblog, didn’t even look at any comments, because I didn’t want to know, but also because the site was down, in the aftermath of the biggest match of the season to date. Our apologies for that. Technology is magical, but sometimes it jams a rusty chainsaw up your bum and fires up the motor. But I can only imagine that that people are saying that Ibrahimovic sucks, we never should have sold Eto’o, blah, blah, blah.
But there’s plenty of culpability to go around. We lost that match in the San Siro, when our defense played like unmitigated dog dung, leaving our keeper awash to ship in three goals. Three goals, none of which should have happened.
–The first found our defense chasing the ball, rather than doing what it was supposed to be doing. Discipline fell apart at the wrong time. So Sneijder was standing there all by himself instead of being marked by Alves, as he should have been. Bang.
–Messi got fouled. So what. Stop whining ahd keep playing. Hard. We didn’t, and Maicon was able to easily get to the goal and fire past Valdes.
–Yes, Milito was offside. So play his butt until you hear the whistle, rather than standing around with your arms up, as lesser clubs do against us.
So we came home down 1-3, with the only real chance being to win 2-0. We didn’t seem to realize that until it was too late, and got outworked.
So sure, go ahead and blame Ibrahimovic, who missed that sitter …. no, wait …. that was Krkic. Blame Ibrahimovic, who put out a lineup that was wrong for the occasion. And I’m sure that it’s someone’s fault that we went to play that exhibition down in whereever the heck it was, on a crappy, slippy pitch that caused Abidal to misstep and injure himself. There’s probably somebody around to blame for that one. And damn you Iniesta, for being so fragile. Ibrahimovic is supposed to carry you around so that you don’t tax your glass-like legs.
We win as a team, and lose as one. The guys played their hearts out for not enough of the match, a match that would have been winnable had we come at it with the right attitude, which was damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead. We did for the first half-hour at The Emirates. Is Arsenal Inter? No, but our game, our speed of play is the same no matter the opponent, and those two things make us the best club in the world. We played tight and scared, scared of Inter, scared of conceding an away goal, and we lost.
So we go home. Justly, say I. They made the most of contact, wasted time and played as slowly as possible? You bet. That’s what a smart club that is down a man does. But it should never have come to that. Tactical hindsight? I leave that for others to natter about. Some say that Guardiola should have started with Krkic and the likes of Jeffren, let them run around like crazy and tire out the Inter defenders, then bring in Ibrahimovic and Pedro! to close the deal. Whatever. We lost.
The fans were awesome. I have not, in a very long time, heard the Camp Nou so full of fire and gusto. It was beautiful to see, and as heart-warming as Busquets’ bit of shame was bile-inducing. Guardiola was suitably classy, but he has always been, throughout everything. I rather imagine that this loss will tear him up, and maybe it should. He made, in my estimation, selection errors. He has to play this match like there’s no tomorrow. The move of putting The Yaya on the back line, then bringing he and Pique up as twin attacking towers from the back was excellent, but why not play a traditional back line, run Keita off the left and put The Yaya alongside Xavi, to raise some hell?
Team: 3. You didn’t play as if your Champions League lives depended upon it until it was way too late. That you still almost got it done speaks to the immense talent at our disposal. We had one match for all the marbles. One match. I wanted to see you playing out of your minds, with the urgency of the moment.
Guardiola: 4. You got outgeniused. You made the right substitutions, but not the right initial lineup from my armchair quarterback’s position.
Valdes: incomplete. It seems weird because he played the whole match, but he didn’t have to do anything. Anything at all. Full stop.
Alves: 1. All you had to do was attack a club that wasn’t really going to attack you, and you screwed the pooch time and again. Where are those crosses going? Where? And stay onside. I know you’re a defender, but you should know what offside is.
The Yaya: 8. You played, and you played, and you played, defending and passing and charging and attacking. When Milito charged at you with the ball, you stood him up and stole it as though you’d been playing center back your whole life. Awesome.
Pique: 8. Brilliant match, from attacking to what little defending you had to do, and what a goal.
Milito: 4. What defending you had to do, you did. But we needed an active, attacking left back. Not your fault that your coach made the wrong selection, but you shouldn’t have been out there.
Keita: 5. Very solid early, with good presence in and around their box. But again, you skillset wasn’t what was needed. Your box-to-box style is what makes you so effective, but in a half-pitch match, you don’t have the attacking style and savvy to really hurt someone.
Busquets: 1. Shame on you. And if you’re going to bring shame to the entire club, play out of your mind by way of atonement. I will not judge you on a single match, but I now have almost a full season of performances by which to evaluate you, and what I see doesn’t make me understand why you play in the position that you do. Last season, you were making sharp, incisive passes that augmented what Xavi does, and hurt our opponents. This season, you’re just playing to get fouls called on other players.
Xavi: 6. When you had space you were effective, but you didn’t really have anyone to play to. You are the engine that drives our bus. I want to see more versatility from you. Make runs, drive into the box, dispatching Keita and The Yaya to make passes, do something.
Messi: 6. You fought and fought, and despite the blanket that followed you for most of the match, you still found moments to shine. But we need even more from you. Make runs, drive and dish, get in your teammates faces to make them understand what was happening. This is your team. You aren’t the captain, but it’s your team. Make it happen. You had some very good moments, and I can’t fault you for your overall play. But leadership is as much part of what you need to bring to the table as your skills with the ball.
Pedro!: 4. Nothing against you, but you aren’t ready yet. Maicon was there for the taking, but needed a better player to do it. You don’t get many chances against a defender of that quality, but when you get them, you have to take them.
Ibrahimovic: 3. We brought you to make a difference in precisely this kind of a match. No, you weren’t getting the kind of service that you like, but you have to make positive movements that make yourself available. Your physical presence put you in the box with some excellent possibilities in the first half, but the next move always fell short. Part of it was your teammates, some the stalwart Inter defense. So no, it wasn’t all your fault, but big players rise to big occasions.
Maxwell (for Milito): 4. Finally, some width! Whew! But clearly, you’ve been working on crosses with Alves. We need pace, style and alacrity of movement from our left back. I know you aren’t the starter, but you have been, in effect for the past two months. You needed to be a lot better.
Krkic (for Ibrahimovic): 5. You were very good, but you canNOT miss a sitter like that with your club’s future on the line. I loved your movement, and you put yourself in good spots time after time after time. Inter’s tired defenders didn’t quite know what to do with you. But you have to finish that chance.
Jeffren (for Busquets): 3. Yes, you have pace and good movement. To what end?
So now what? We have the Liga to play for, with Villarreal away this weekend. If we are ever going to drop points in the Liga, this will be the time. The possibility of a trophyless season is real. Will it still have been a successful season? As I have said before, yes in my eyes. We have had to overcome so much this year, and almost did it. But at the end, it was just too much.
The big question right now is Ibrahimovic. Everybody is saying that Inter got the better of that deal, blah, blah, blah. And certainly, Eto’o played his heart out yesterday. But we bought Ibrahimovic to be a Plan B, in an offense that doesn’t have a Plan B. He is a striker who is used to hearing “Go long, Zlatan!” Our offense is not used to saying “Go long, Zlatan,” or anyone else for that matter. So he comes in as the Plan B, but we don’t really know how to work a Plan B. All we have is Plan A.
Mourinho knew this, and let us tika-taka our way just outside the danger zone, as United did two years ago, and defended when we got close enough to vex them. And away we went, then as now.
In the off season, we will have time to learn to work together, our offense and system with Ibrahimovic. It’s always been “He doesn’t fit in, he sucks.” But if you buy a shovel, then wonder why you can’t drive nails with it, whose fault is that? It’s as much the fault of our offense and system as it is Ibrahmovic. We have this institutional arrogance that says “We are the best club in the world, and anybody who comes needs to fit in. If they don’t it’s their fault.” Wrong. The style that we play makes us predictable. We bought maybe the world’s best shovel. Now let’s dig some graves for our opponents.
Recall when I said that part of the reason that keepers seem to have the match of their lives against us is because of the logic of tika-taka? How if you follow the ball, it’s pretty clear where it’s headed, and where the shot is coming from? Imagine being a world-class defender, who is trying to figure out how to play us. So again, it isn’t one person’s fault. There is plenty of culpability to go ’round.
And this doesn’t even take into account the injury difference. With Abidal and Iniesta, it’s a very different match. Recall that we had both of them, but not Messi or Ibrahimovic, for the 2-0 group stage win against Inter. We were brilliant. We didn’t have the same pace and movement this time, but there was also a lot more on the line, and Inter played a very different match.
Now we’re finished with Champions League, and on we go. We have the Liga to shoot for now. Let’s do this.